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We do not like thee, Hilary Mantel,
The reason why – we cannot tell;
But this we know, and know full well,
We do not like thee, Hilary Mantel.


The British press has gone bananas. This time over remarks about the Duchess of Cambridge made by an acclaimed author of Tudor historical novels.


A few days ago Hilary Mantel delivered a lecture based on her essay Royal Bodies, published in the London Review of Books (podcast and essay at this link).

The offending words (all out of context):

“… a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung … a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore … as painfully thin as anyone could wish, without quirks, without oddities, without the risk of the emergence of character. She appears precision-made, machine-made.”

Outraged journalists described Mantel’s words as mean-spirited and venomous and vitriolic. The prime minister came out in defence of The Most Noble Kate. He was joined by the leader of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition.

The controversy spilled onto the radio-waves when people rang the Jeremy Vine Show to give their opinions (slide to 1h 10m). The people talked over each other. They insisted on missing the point. They engaged in fallacies and cognitive bias. And after their initial reserve they triumphantly identified themselves as either royalist or republican. The labels were irrelevant; mutual opposition was all that mattered. A man (republican) clinched the argument with the phrase: “My arse!” The line went dead, and Jeremy apologised for, “the word that is not bottom”.

Mantel’s essay reflects on the treatment of the royal person, particularly the effect this has on the observed (them) and the observer (us). Her stories of encounters with the Prince of Wales and the Queen are a little dispiriting and yet a reminder that there really is no Us and Them.

I enjoyed the essay and must recommend it for this paragraph alone:

“I used to think that the interesting issue was whether we should have a monarchy or not. But now I think that question is rather like, should we have pandas or not? Our current royal family doesn’t have the difficulties in breeding that pandas do, but pandas and royal persons alike are expensive to conserve and ill-adapted to any modern environment. But aren’t they interesting? Aren’t they nice to look at? Some people find them endearing; some pity them for their precarious situation; everybody stares at them, and however airy the enclosure they inhabit, it’s still a cage.”

In the second half of the essay Mantel concentrates on the Tudors, mostly Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. I thought she was about to answer the question that keeps bugging me: Why are Tudor fans obsessed with this couple? Why view the history of the time through this particular prism?

Mantel makes the point that the nature of the king’s reign was gynaecological, the tragedy biological rather than moral:

“Women, their bodies, their reproductive capacities, their animal nature, are central to the story.”

Is this why women identify so much with the relationship? Worth thinking about, but Mantel ploughs on with a hypothesis on an obscure medical condition that may have affected the king. That just raises another question: why don’t we accept that we cannot know this, that certain information has been destroyed, never to be retrieved?

So rather than speculate on what cannot be known, why not play with the unknowability? That way we might reflect on ourselves. Instead Mantel ends with two blunt conclusions: that, “a royal lady is a royal vagina”; and that modern monarchy is a licensed entertainment, like, “strip-joints and lap-dancing clubs”. Hmm … I think the press may have missed the real controversy.

I hope I’ve done the essay justice. It’s a good read – interesting, amusing, but not quite resolved. Apart from that, the controversy over Kate is batty. And today I bought a copy of Wolf Hall. Not a bad result.


For a cartoon that stupidly makes Mantel’s point for her (sort of), see this from the Daily Mail.

And for a parody of what passes for public discourse in Britain please watch (3:31) …